Talking Storytelling and Standup with Selena Coppock
It’s a great time to be a standup with both a killer persona and writing chops, and Selena Coppock knows a lot about both. The Massachusetts native currently lives in New York City and has spent years performing at standup and storytelling events like The Moth and Yum’s the Word as well as co-hosting the Bitchcraft! variety show and publishing her first book, The New Rules for Blondes: Highlights from a Fair-Haired Life in 2013.
Her debut standup album, Seen Better Days, came out earlier this month and quickly made it to the top of the iTunes comedy charts, drawing from observations and stories about her professional life, why DJs would make good census takers and, of course, her endless obsession with Guns N’ Roses. Although she’s come out and admitted that subtlety isn’t her thing before, behind her bombastic stage presence is a sharp eye for details and a keen sense of word choice. Certainly not everyone could pull off an image of themselves flipping the double bird as their web background. With so much experience under her belt, it’s a safe bet to say that Selena’s poised to be busy for the near future. I recently chatted with her about her approach to comedy, her future ambitions, and how she narrowly avoided tricking people into thinking she was a Bob Seger imitator online.
Congrats on the new album! How was the recording process? Did it feel like a natural progression from your standup or did it take special preparation?
I’m really excited about the album, thank you so much! It did feel like a natural next step, because I’ve been doing standup for…gosh, I hate to admit, a little over twelve years. I was sort of inspired to do an album because I was talking to a standup comedian acquaintance, and she was like “Yeah, I’ve been doing standup two years so I think it’s time to do an album,” and I was like “How am I not doing an album?” And I had plenty of time to fill an album. My friends have gotten me into goal setting and that kind of stuff, which I used to think was for losers, but now I actually think is a really great way to structure yourself and have progress and feel like you’re moving forward. Because I do think sometimes I tend to just float and be like, “I do comedy! It’s fun!”
The title comes from the character description you got for a role on the Amazon series Red Oaks. When you saw that, did you know immediately that it just had to be the album title or was it something you worked on gradually?
It sort of worked out gradually. I knew that I wanted the album title to reveal itself and I didn’t want to push too hard to force a title or concept. I had 50-ish minutes of material that I do when I headline so I knew what jokes I was going to tell, what themes I was going to hit, of course, but I was hoping that a specific phrase or line would really hit and sort of present itself to me as if to say “Hey girl, I’m the title of your album right here.” Seen Better Days really pulled off that maneuver in that the line hits so hard, but also it is a good overarching theme of the album. There’s a lot that Seen Better Days connects to — my role on Red Oaks, but also my tips on how to avoid mugging, the Guns N’ Roses cover band bar fight story, the fact that I’m a woman in her late 30s with roommates.
When I originally sat down with [Little Lamb Recordings producer] Shonali Bhowmik, we agreed that the title should reveal itself. Then after the two shows that we recorded to make the album, I sat down with Anya Garrett to brainstorm cover design — she took the photos of me, did the graphics and design — and she had such great ideas for how we could do a visual representation of Seen Better Days through a photo, so we knew we wanted a mirror, some funky stuff with my eyes, me looking pretty retro. Another important thing as a standup is that you want an album title that will seem like a standup album. I had a moment of wanting to call the album Main Street after my Bob Seger joke, but it occured to me that people might see it on iTunes and assume I was a female Bob Seger impressionist or something. Which is my dream job, certainly, but doesn’t quickly tell the consumer that this album is standup.
How do you approach storytelling within your standup as opposed to a specific storytelling space like The Moth? Do you feel like your comedic voice changes based on the medium?
A lot of my jokes are almost like stories — many are longer than your average joke and many are based on real, true things that happened to me. The difference between the standup version and the storytelling version is mostly in how much time I will let something breathe. With standup I like to be rapid-fire, hit a lot of punches on the way in, make sure people are entertained during every part of the story. With storytelling you can let it breathe, which is fun and different.
Storytelling audiences are so patient — they don’t think a setup is too long, but instead, you’re setting the scene. So storytelling feels calmer because the audience will go on this journey with you — they’re in no rush. With a story from my life that I am doing as a standup piece, I feel more pressure to be funny throughout, which is certainly different than storytelling. And one of the loveliest things about storytelling is that you don’t have to be funny at all. I tell some stories onstage — on storytelling shows or at The Moth’s story slams — that literally make me cry, and it’s a cool opportunity to do that.
Have you always written and performed simultaneously or did you come to one before the other?
I was a performer before I was a writer. My sister and I used to put on little homemade plays when we were kids and I sang and acted in middle school and high school. In college I was in the short-form improv troupe and the coed a cappella group, so I have always been comfortable onstage. I got into writing in high school and majored in English in college, then writing actual jokes didn’t come until after that, really. After college I studied improv at IO in Chicago and then performed improv in Boston for years before I dared to try standup. For years I was much more comfortable having no script or plan (that is, doing improv) than I was having a plan (standup). Thankfully, after much too long, I finally got comfortable onstage alone as a standup.
Do you find your status as a Bostonian transplant comes up a lot in your performances?
Early on, I leaned on the Boston stuff a lot. My first two years of standup were in Boston, so I had a ton of local jokes and stories about my ex-boyfriend or D’Angelo (I was really into that sandwich shop and trying to make a joke that would somehow combine the sandwich shop and the R&B singer), a house fight in Worcester I found myself in the middle of. Then I moved to New York and God bless my friend Emily Epstein White, a wonderful comedian, who took me aside and was like, “Girl, your jokes are too Boston for you to be trying to tell them in New York City.” She was completely right. I do think that I have a Boston attitude in that onstage I am extremely in-your-face, aggressive, and intense. Never mean, but just high energy. My standup style has been called “terrifying” and I’ve been told that watching me tell jokes feels like watching a hilarious bar fight that’s about to erupt.
Any particular projects you have in mind now that the album is out?
I’m hoping to do some more essay writing — personal essays or stuff that is like storytelling, just even more fleshed out. I dream of having complete strangers see me on the street and scream my own punchlines in my face — but that’s a big dream — and I’d like to spend more time playing with the voice of the fake Grey Lady that I do on my parody Twitter and Instagram accounts, @NYTVows. That account gives me an opportunity to write for a character and I thoroughly enjoy it. I get to mock The New York Times (lovingly) but also the wedding industrial complex, traditions, social class issues, and trends. In the new year I’d like to check out a few cities that have solid comedy scenes that I haven’t yet checked out — Washington DC, Atlanta, New Orleans.
It’s so weird when you release an album. “DJ Stats” is my old closer, so I’ve been telling that joke for so long, so it’s nice. I’ve just been working on some new stuff. Just new jokes, silly premises. And it’s just been fun to feel really free and like “Okay, I’m not really preparing for anything, I’m just writing silly premises to write silly premises.”
One final question: Have you had the chance to see Guns N’ Roses at all recently? Apparently they sold really well last year.
Yes! I saw them last summer! I used to co-host a podcast with my two buddies, Tim Warner and Bill Chambers. It was called Get In The Ring and it was a Guns N’ Roses appreciation podcast. It was pretty amazing. It’s no longer out there, so sometimes I hate to even reference it because people are like “Where are the episodes?” and I’m like “Uhhh…they’re trapped in the internet.” I don’t even think they’re online anymore. So the three of us took a bus out to, I think it was Giants Stadium, and saw Guns N’ Roses outdoors on the Not in This Lifetime Tour. It broke my heart not to see Steven [Adler] behind the dum kit, for it not to be the original five, but it was a great show, and so nice to hear those classics played live. Axl seems to have done a 180 as far as his attitude and I appreciate it!
Photo by Anya Garrett.